French President Sarkozy
Sarkozy has been forced into second place by Francois Hollande after the first round of Presidential Elections

As the dust settles from an intense round of campaigning preceding the first round of the French Presidential elections, the French voting public find themselves faced with a two horse race.

In the first round count, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande led Sarkozy in second place, with hard right leader Marine Le Pen in third and darling of the far left jean-Luc Melenchon trailing them in fourth place.

The results mark the end of presidential dreams for an incredible ten hopeful candidates from across the whole spectrum of French politics – in one of the most hotly contested elections of recent years.

In casting their votes for opposition favourite Hollande and reigning President Sarkozy, the French public clearly rose to the occasion, giving a huge voting turnout of over 80%.

For the two surviving candidates it is now that the real work begins; although there is no shortage of pundits and prophets who say that it is already all over bar the shouting.

Hollande Covers his Left Flank.

In the aftermath of the election, supporters of Sarkozy have been vocal in their complaints that the official campaigning was biased against their president.

In a sense this was to be expected.  By law all ten candidates were allowed equal broadcasting and publicity time, and the ruling man is always an easy target.  Whatever the divergence of views between the candidates; they were all united – from Communists to the National Front – in their vitriolic polemics against the president.

Sarkozy’s supporters claim that the President’s message was drowned out in a flood of slander and cat calls by the opposition candidates.  Be this as it may, Sarkozy is clearly flustered.

In contrast, election hopeful Hollande continues to exude a confident atmosphere of relaxed charm and authority.  This was no doubt bolstered by the speech given by the Communist Party’s Jean-Luc Melenchon, the third placed candidate, an hour after the results came in.  In a show of good sportsmanship rare in French politics, Melenchon graciously threw in the towel and urged his 3.8 million supporters to put their voting muscle behind Monsieur Hollande.

With his left covered, Hollande has breathing space to withdraw from polemics and concentrate on ideas generation and debate in preparation for the second round on 6th May.

Sarkozy however, does not have this luxury.  Not only does he face stiff opposition from his opponents on the left, but he continues to be barraged with savage attacks from the far-right.  Charismatic National Front leader Marine Le-Pen, who commands the loyalty of a potentially crucial 6.3 million voters – has categorically ruled out a tactical alliance with Sarkozy.

In fact, polls suggest that most National Front supporters would rather abstain or even vote for Hollande rather than lend support to the hated Sarkozy, in a stroke denying the president upwards of 18% of the voting electorate!

The Sarkozy camp’s main hope now is to goad Hollande into a one-on-one televised debate – and arena in which Sarkozy has historically excelled – and pick the Socialist manifesto apart piece by piece.  With many French observers unconvinced that Hollande is not more style than substance, this could still prove to be Sarkozy’s winning card.

Victim of Arithmetic

There is a strange fatalistic logic in French politics that may yet play a role in driving Sarkozy over the precipice of defeat.  History has shown that many elections are determined by debates in the few days following the first round.

An atmosphere sets in that is difficult to shake.  In this instance, Hollande is ahead of Sarkozy – in the coming days the country and press will subtlety make up their mind.  By the time May 6th dawns, the result will already be seen as inevitable and will thus become a self fulfilling prophecy.

This goes some way to explain the glum pessimism and sense of anti-climax that often follows French election victories, in contrast to the tribal euphoria of the preceding campaign.

Although the President no doubt still has some tricks up his sleeve; with Sarkozy caught between the pincers of arithmetic and politics, not many people will be betting on a second term at this stage.